Ellen Garrison Jackson Clark (1823-1892)
Teacher, abolitionist, civil rights activist
At a parade marking the bicentennial of the town of Concord, Massachusetts in 1835, a 12-year-old girl named Ellen Garrison did something unprecedented: she walked hand-in-hand with one of her classmates This wouldn’t have been a curious sight, two little girls marching together to mark the celebration, except that Ellen was the daughter of a formerly enslaved man. She was the only person of color to participate.
The event was so unusual that it was even retold in The Slave’s Friend, an abolitionist magazine for children. “You have heard of Concord, Mass,” the article begins. “The people of that town united with the inhabitants of Lexington in fighting for liberty…Just read what they think of liberty now.” The event drew Ellen and her white friend’s mothers into the local and national abolitionist movement, and drew Ellen in, as well. Along with other women young and older, White and Black, those who were well-off financially and those who were not, they formed the Concord Female Anti-Slavery Society. The women in this organization worked tirelessly to end slavery in the United States. They raised money for abolitionist activities. They circulated and signed petitions that were sent to politicians in Massachusetts and in Washington, D.C. They brought famous speakers active in the abolition movement to Concord: Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman and William Lloyd Garrison, among others. Some of the women housed freedom seekers in their homes. And some would become so inspired in the cause of creating equality for Black people that they would go on to become teachers in schools to help educate formerly enslaved people.
Ellen Garrison Jackson was born in Concord Massachusetts on April 14, 1823. Her father, Jack Garrison, received his freedom after fighting the British in the revolutionary war. Her mother, Susan Garrison, was a founding member of the Concord Female Anti-Slavery Society. The Garrison family, along with their extended relatives lived in a small house in Concord; this house, now known as Robbins House, is today a museum for African American history.
Growing up in this climate of activism, Ellen also became active in both teaching and fighting for equal rights. She went on to teach newly freed people in Boston, Rhode Island, Maryland, North Carolina and Kansas, as an Exoduster. She also continued to find ways of speaking out against racial injustice.
In 1857, Ellen was married to John W Jackson in 1857, adding the name ‘Jackson’ as part of her legal name. But little is known about their relationship. Her husband passed away in 1863. While they were married Ellen taught children in privately funded schools in the north, having a passion for teaching.
In the midst of the Civil War, Ellen Garrison Jackson applied to be a teacher in the South through the American Missionary Association (AMA). The AMA had begun to set up schools for the newly emancipated Southern people and Ellen applied and was accepted to be one of the teachers in the program. Between 1865 and 1870 Ellen taught hundreds of students in Virginia and Maryland. Ellen decided to teach in the South specifically because she was on a mission. As she states in a letter she wrote to the AMA in June 1863 “I have a great desire to go and labor among the freedmen of the South. I think it is our duty as a people to spend our lives in trying to elevate our own race. Who can feel for us if we do not feel for ourselves? And who can feel the sympathy that we can, who are identified with them?” Ellen understood the harsh persistent racism in the South and believed in black unity across the nation. At this time, the political and social impact Black people had on the nation was tightly linked with the southern Black community. It was crucial for educated Black people to climb the ladder to racial equality while supporting and lifting their Southern peers. Ellen recognized the importance of this link and the impact of education within the Black community and took it upon herself to fulfill this mission.
Ellen first taught in Port Deposit, Maryland, between April 1865 and August 1868. She then taught in James City, Virginia, from January to July 1869. In 1870, she taught in Cokesburg, Maryland, for the American Baptist Home Mission Society. She also was an employee of the Freedmen’s Friends Association in 1873 and taught in Hillsborough and Greensboro, North Carolina.
While teaching in the South, Ellen was responsible for fundraising, visiting students’ homes, delivering public addresses, and teaching Sunday School. Over 100 school reports and letters written by Ellen have been discovered in the Amistad Archives for the American Missionary Association in New Orleans. As part of the program, Ellen was required to fill out monthly student progress reports. Some of the questions on the form included “Do the mulattoes show any more capacity than the blacks?” or “Do the colored scholars show equal capacity with the whites” (as compared to whites in southern schools the report clarifies). To those questions, Ellen always wrote “Equal” as this was always true.
Along with being a beloved teacher, Ellen was also a civil rights activist. Perhaps the apex of her activism came in 1866 when she and a fellow teacher were evicted from a railroad station in Baltimore. Ellen and her friend Mary C.J Anderson sat to wait for the evening train on May 4, 1866. A white woman waiting for the train was offended by their presents and shouted verbal insults. The train conductor then asked both women to leave. When Ellen and Mrs. Anderson refused to give up their seats both women were “forcibly ejected” from the room by the conductor.
Ellen recounted this experience in a letter she wrote in 1866:
“An outrage has just accrued which demands attention. It was nothing less than the forcible ejection of myself and Mrs. Anderson from the ladies sitting room at the depot. We were thrown out. We were injured in our persons as well as our feelings for it was with no gentle hand that we were assisted from that room and I feel the effects of it still.”
Following this experience, Ellen decided to test the newly enacted Civil Rights Act. She filed a lawsuit to test “whether respectable people have rights which are to be respected.” Decades before Rosa Parks, Ellen Garrison seemed acutely aware of the real and symbolic importance of her civic action: “I feel as though I ought to strive to maintain my rights,” she wrote in a letter. “It will be a stand for others.” Despite her efforts, the Maryland jury dismissed the case in July of 1866 and Ellen did not receive any form of justice for the train conductor's actions. However, her bravery and advocacy in standing her ground in the midst of racial injustice, and exercising and challenging the Civil Rights Act and its credibility months after the act was passed is noteworthy.
Eventually, Ellen moved to Barton County Kansas, and lived in a community of formerly enslaved individuals called the “Exodusters.” Throughout the 1880’s she continued to teach at the local school, making a difference in the lives of many more Black students. It’s there she met her second husband, Harvey Clark.
Not much is known about the last few years of Ellen’s life. We do know that the Clarks moved to California, thinking that the climate would be better for their health. Ellen had contracted what was then known as “consumption,” (tuberculosis), the disease from which she died in 1892. She was buried in an unmarked grave, her lifetime of service and activism seemingly forgotten. But on Juneteenth, 2021, Ellen received a headstone through a campaign by the Altadena Historical Society. Her legacy today is carried on largely through the efforts of the Robbins House, her childhood home.
Jadyn Mardy and Julie Dobrow
Davis, Christina Lenore. THE COLLECTIVE IDENTITIES of WOMEN TEACHERS in BLACK SCHOOLS in the POST-BELLUM SOUTH. 2016, getd.libs.uga.edu/pdfs/davis_christina_l_201605_phd.pdf. Accessed 2023. University of Georgia, PhD Dissertation.
“Ellen Garrison Exhibit.” The Robbins House, robbinshouse.org/projects/ellen-garrison-exhibit/. Accessed 3 Apr. 2023.
“Ellen Garrison Jackson - the Robbins House.” The Robbins House, 2015, robbinshouse.org/story/ellen-garrison-jackson/.
JEANETTE MARANTOS. “How We Got the Story of Ellen Garrison Jackson Clark and Her Courageous, Unsung Life.” Los Angeles Times, 30 July 2021, www.latimes.com/lifestyle/story/2021-07-30/how-we-got-the-story-of-ellen-garrison-jackson-clark-and-her-courageous-unsung-life. Accessed 3 Apr. 2023.